They call him Dr. Flush.
Don Rethke, a Granby resident, was a driving force behind the creation of a functional space station toilet concept as well as essential life-support equipment for NASA’s Apollo program during his 37 years at Hamilton Standard (now known as Hamilton Sundstrand) in Windsor Locks. He was also one of the engineers that helped bring the Apollo 13 astronauts home safely after an oxygen tank explosion aborted that mission in 1970 and threatened the lives of the crew.
Rethke, born in 1937, grew up on a farm outside Madison, WI, that lacked running water. His most famous work connects his life on a spectrum that runs from the privy to a finely tuned toilet that functions in zero gravity conditions.
“I’ve gone from the outhouse to the cosmic commode in my lifetime,” Rethke said.
Through his work with various life support systems for the Apollo missions, Rethke became a key developer for the cosmic commode, a major project that eventually had him overseeing more than 30 engineers and other workers to create a functional space station toilet concept.
While toilets on Earth are relatively simple devices, that is most definitely not the case in a zero gravity environment where power and useable areas are at a premium.
“You can’t just open a window and throw it out,” Rethke said.
A major and potentially unpleasant (and even dangerous) challenge of crafting such a device: Waste does not cleanly or completely leave the body without the aid of gravity. To conquer the gravity problem, Rethke and his team used an air entrainment system to simulate gravity and create a separation of waste from the bodies of the astronauts.
Other design specifications required by NASA included the need to collect liquid and solid waste separately, no water used in the toilet system, ease of use by both men and women, a minimum use of power, the elimination of odors and bacteria, no venting or dumping of waste into space, the need to clean the system inside the spacecraft and the reclamation of urine to possibly covert into potable water.
Despite the many strict requirements for the system, the space toilet was a success.
“The unit we developed here at Hamilton flew successfully four times on the shuttle,” he said.
Rethke’s farm-based upbringing coincided with an interest in machinery and mechanics. When it came time to go to college, he attended the University of Wisconsin and earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1960.
After three years of service in the Navy as the main propulsion officer on the USS Eldorado in the South China Sea, Rethke came to Hamilton Standard. The company was looking for engineers to work on a government contract covering the life support systems, lunar modules and parts of the spacesuits used on NASA’s Apollo missions.
One of Rethke’s primary responsibilities was the spacesuit backpack, which included various life-support systems. The 12 astronauts who visited the moon left their backpacks behind to lower the overall weight of the lunar excursion module, and therefore conserve fuel, for its return trip to the command module. Those backpacks, among the few human artifacts that exist outside the confines of Earth, were designed and produced in Connecticut.
During his time at Hamilton, Rethke was involved, along with his colleagues, in almost every major life support system furnished for the Apollo project. He also worked on the lunar excursion module, Skylab, the space shuttle and, after the Cold War, Russia’s Mir space station.
Since his retirement, Rethke has remained involved in the Granby community and beyond. He has spoken to more than 300,000 children at schools and museums about his work and was instrumental in establishing US Robotics teams at local schools, including Enfield’s Enrico Fermi High School and Granby Memorial High School.
This year’s robotics team at GMHS is especially meaningful to both Rethke and the team, as they are dedicating their season and building their robot to honor Greg Tarbox, a GMHS student and team member who passed away in September.
He also volunteers at the New England Air Museum and chairs Granby’s senior men’s breakfast group, organizing speakers and volunteers for the monthly event.
Rethke said he has a strong desire to give back because of the success of his own career, to help kids start up in life and get involved on career paths and otherwise contribute to the community.